MLB to test a new “enhanced-grip” baseball in the Southern League in 2023

Major League Baseball is testing a new iteration of an “enhanced-grip” baseball in the Double-A Southern League this season, which starts Friday.

A similar test was called off early last year after it became clear that the ball being tested was not going to be the solution to lingering concerns about how well major-league pitchers can grip a baseball without resorting to performance-enhancing so-called “sticky stuff.” Changes were made based on player feedback, resulting in the ball that will be tested this year — though implementation at the major-league level would be a long way off and, indeed, might never come to pass if the league ultimately decides that the long-standing process of “muddying” the baseball is better than any synthetic alternative.

Rawlings, which MLB purchased in 2018, makes all the MLB baseballs. But the balls emerge from that process too slick and too shiny for game use. For decades, that has been addressed with the charmingly low-fi approach of having clubhouse attendants hand-rub special mud onto each baseball.

In recent years, several factors have led MLB to look for a superior — or at least more standardized — solution. In the middle of 2021, as offensive numbers reached new lows, the league cracked down on illegal use of substances beyond the prescribed rosin to get a better grip on baseballs because such substances had led to increased spin on increasingly unhittable pitches. The use of sticky stuff was deemed problematic for the way it gave pitchers an added advantage over hitters, but the grip component — nearly necessary in some conditions — is something the league is open to replicating.

Separately, players of all positions have complained about inconsistencies in the current baseballs.

MLB has experimented with pre-tacked baseballs since at least 2016 — using them at different times in the independent Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League and soliciting feedback from major-leaguers on potential prototypes.

Last year in Double-A, the league tested two different post-manufacturing grips. In other words, the balls were made by Rawlings as usual, and then a grip substance was applied before they were put into use. The plan was to test versions by Dow and Chalkless and compare the results to the traditional mudded baseballs.

One of those experiments was called off after only a couple of weeks because, according to an MLB source, it was clear that iteration was not working.

"We’d seen enough to know we needed to make improvements,” the source said.

Dow, in conjunction with MLB and in response to feedback from that experiment, made adjustments to the process, and the new version is what is being tested this season. The plan is to use the Dow ball for the first half of the Southern League’s season and the mudded ball for the second half.

"The feedback you get from a pitcher holding a ball in a clubhouse is different from the feedback you get from a pitcher using it in a bullpen session, which is different again from the feedback you get from someone throwing it in a game,” the source said of the slow process of building a better ball.

But, as they have in the past, the league maintains that the current system of applying old-school mud is perfectly sufficient — especially since they introduced new specifications. In June, MLB sought to standardize the process of mud application by reviewing video of every team’s preparation. A memo was disseminated outlining best practices and setting strict guidelines for how to handle and store baseballs.

The result, according to the MLB source, is that "the ball today is the most consistent it's ever been.”